Further thoughts on the Nolan Bushnell GDC award saga

Upside down Atari
So not too long after or perhaps even right before that previous post went live, the Game Developers Conference made the predictable, easy, and feel-good decision to rescind the Pioneer Award they planned to give to Nolan Bushnell. For reasons stated previously, I think this is the wrong move.

I’m going to go as far as to say that the GDC’s action to rescind Nolan’s award does far more to devalue it than proceeding with the original plan to present it to him ever would have. Apparently, now it’s acceptable to judge 1970s conduct by 2018 standards. This is grossly unfair to those who just “went with the flow.”

One post shared to the AtariAge group on Facebook, by way of a group called Classic Home Video Games, states “Sounds like he’s guilty of nothing more than partying, consensual/casual sex, and living in the swingin’ seventies.” This roughly aligns with how I feel.

Another post to the AtariAge group said, simply, “Nolan responds with class” and includes a link to Nolan’s official statement, posted to Twitter as an image, reads as follows:

I applaud the GDC for ensuring that their institution reflects what is right, specifically with regards to how people should be treated in the workplace. And if that means an award is the price I have to pay personally so the whole industry may be more aware and sensitive to these issues, I applaud that too. If my personal actions or the actions of anyone who ever worked with me offended or caused pain to anyone at our companies, then I apologize without reservation.

Maybe a lot of people see it as classy, but I am disappointed in Nolan’s response. The apology is understandable, but rolling over and saying in effect that it’s okay to go back and basically rewrite history is not. We know what acceptable conduct is in 2018. We know a lot of what went on in the 1970s and early 1980s would not fly by the standards we have here in 2018. I don’t see what’s so wrong with acknowledging that in the same breath as recognizing the good associated with the Atari and Chuck E. Cheese brands as the video gaming institutions that they are, by giving the founder the originally announced award.

There’s no nice way to say this: Nolan Bushnell got robbed, and the GDC really stepped in Bantha poop this year. I would go as far as to interpret Nolan’s statement as being made under duress, that that can’t possibly be what he really wanted to say, and the only reason we are reading what we are is he’s speaking out of fear of never getting this award. There’s really no other logical explanation for rolling over and saying it’s okay for the GDC to do this. Because it was not okay. A lot of the stuff that went on at Atari in the 1970s wasn’t okay either by today’s standards, but the reality is the same Atari where Nolan wore his “I love to fuck” T-shirt is the same one where all that magic happened.

I am not taking the side of sexual harassers of decades past, but instead, I am taking the side of fairness and decency, and recognizing the good achievements of someone even if there is some not-so-good mixed in with them. However, I am going to find it very difficult to recognize whoever gets the 2018 Pioneer Award in Nolan’s place to have received something that rightfully belongs to them, or to recognize the award at its full value. I can already tell you the very best case is that I’m going to be rather annoyed unless the GDC fully reverses course. At worst, my outrage knob is going to be turned up to eleven.

Here’s to hoping the GDC comes to its senses in 2019 and give the award to Nolan Bushnell as it was supposed to be this year. I’m hoping this #metoo stuff will have finally blown over by then.

(For those expecting my take on the State of the Union address, I have not forgotten about it; that will be addressed in a post no later than Friday. I have a huge backlog of draft posts to finish; hopefully, I’ll be caught up before Valentine’s Day.)

Nolan Bushnell versus the #metoo movement

Nolan Bushnell 2013.jpg

I grew up during the genesis of the video game industry. I had an Atari 2600, an Atari 1200XL computer, an Atari 7800, and an Atari Lynx growing up (I also had a Nintendo received as a holiday gift one year, which I requested once it became obvious the 7800 was lacking in decent titles). So I identify quite clearly as a member of the “Atari Generation” (not to be confused with the “Pepsi Generation”, as I mainly drank Coca-Cola and iced tea).

Fast forward to a few moments ago, when I found out from this article published in The Verge about how Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari (and also Chuck E. Cheese, another 80s video gaming-related institution), was due to receive an award from the Game Developers Conference. Unfortunately, as you can see by the title of the article once you read it, this decision is not without controversy.

From the article:

In a 2011 interview, former Atari exec Ray Kassar recalls arriving on his first day in a suit, only to find Bushnell wearing a t-shirt that said ”I love to fuck.” In a Playboy profile from 2012, Bushnell wistfully recalls the “wild environment” of the ‘70s Atari era. “It was post–flower revolution, women’s liberation, no AIDS yet, and lots of company romances.” It also describes how the engineers at Atari code-named their projects after attractive female employees; “Darlene,” the code-name for the home version of Pong, was inspired by a woman who Bushnell described to Playboy as “stacked.”

And further down:

[Steven L. Kent’s book The Ultimate History of Video Games] also quotes Pong designer Al Alcon, who describes one such meeting. “Nolan needed some papers and documents so he called his office and said, ‘Have Miss so and so bring them up.’ We were in this tub [when she arrived], so he proceeded to try to get her in the tub during the board meeting. Nolan’s attorney was miffed [because] we got his papers wet. He was not in the hot tub and he was not amused by any any of this. That was the sort of fun we had.”

My stance on this is not cut-and-dried one way or the other. I support the #metoo movement in principle. Sexual harassment and sexual abuse is unacceptable conduct in decent society. We as a society have made great strides in this over the past quarter century or so. The portions of Nolan’s conduct which qualify as inappropriate in retrospect should be condemned. I consider such conduct indefensible, at least by today’s standards, and I’m not going to try to defend it.

However, I feel that denying Nolan the award by judging his 1970s and early 1980s conduct by 2018 norms is completely unfair. That’s how some guys acted back then. Obviously, that conduct would never fly in a corporate environment in the present day. The 1970s were a different time with a different set of cultural norms. It would be like discrediting Benjamin Franklin’s contributions to science and the founding of the United States just because he once wrote an essay entitled “Fart Proudly” which some might find distasteful. (Yes, I’ll admit my inner 10-year old giggles a bit when imaging the guy pictured on our $100 bill letting one rip. But I digress…)

Further down in the article, game developer and US House of Representatives candidate Brianna Wu is quoted as saying “Bushnell is an important figure. But this isn’t the year to honor him.” While I feel Brianna has a point, I have to look at it from the other side. Will we be ready next year to honor Nolan’s pioneering work in video games? Is it the intent of the #metoo movement to disqualify Nolan from getting such an award one year at a time until he dies, and possibly even after? That’s certainly what I see happening; this is the top of a potentially steep and very slippery slope.

I also have a feeling Atari wasn’t the only company in the industry where such things happened. If we’re going to say Nolan doesn’t deserve the award because of this, that too is the top of a potentially steep and very slippery slope. And the end result of it would be that a lot of people who made the video game industry what it is today will miss out on a lot of awards they otherwise would have received. I’d like to think that’s not really what the #metoo movement is after.

So in conclusion, despite the opposition, I think GDC is doing the right thing by giving Nolan the award they have announced. However, I would not be opposed to the GDC condemning the instances of Nolan’s inappropriate conduct from four decades ago. I also do not feel Nolan’s rather belated apology for that conduct would devalue the award itself, nor the presentation of the award to him today in 2018. Times change, and we should not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater just because of that.